'It Could Be That Streaming Music Is Coming of Age ...' the Case for Online Music Services Is Becoming More Persuasive

Gramophone, April 2017 | Go to article overview

'It Could Be That Streaming Music Is Coming of Age ...' the Case for Online Music Services Is Becoming More Persuasive


Two things since I wrote last month's Essay on voice-controlled devices have shown me how radically the music landscape is changing. A friend contacted me raving about the Amazon Echo device a relative had bought, and Tidal rolled out the first tranche of music at 'Masters' quality using MQA technology.

'It's amazing: I just asked her to play a song I was thinking about, and there it was,' came the only slightly breathlessly excited 'I must have one' message I received from my friend. Seems she'd been visiting a relative and they were talking about a song, and the relative just said 'Ask Alexa.'

She had no idea where the music came from or how--chances are it was sourced from the Amazon Music catalogue, as I'm not sure they've gone to the stage of Spotify integration or the like--nor did she really care: for the price of the Echo device, which is around 150 [pounds sterling], she had all the music she could ever want on tap for free, which seemed like a fairly tempting prospect. And, provided the catalogue covers the genres in which she's interested, it's a service one might find relatively hard to argue with, even if she never moves on to controlling her heating, lighting and so on with the Amazon device.

At the other end of the spectrum, I was delighted to see the arrival of a range of MQA-encoded Masters recordings, mainly from the Warner Bros catalogue, on the Tidal service. These 'studio quality' titles come complete with the ability to play them using no extra hardware via the company's desktop app on a home computer, which then connects to the hi-fi system using a USB connection, either via a dedicated input on some amplifier and receivers or using a suitable USB DAC.

All of a sudden, this move seems to justify the hoo-hah that's been going on about Tidal for what seems like a rather long time and clarifies what the system is all about. After all, the idea of smaller file sizes, created via MQA's 'audio origami', seems to be of little relevance when computer storage is so inexpensive: most affordable laptops now come with 500GB or 1TB of hard-disk space as standard and adding extra storage, either as plug-in USB drives or network-attached devices, has never been cheaper.

No, where MQA makes sense is in applications such as Tidal, in which music is streamed in real time from online servers and played as it's received. In that context, keeping file-sizes small--and thus data transfer rates down--makes good sense. After all, not everyone has the three-figure Mbps broadband rates some of us enjoy.

And the Tidal implementation makes listening to these Masters recordings very simple, thanks to built-in MQA decoding. …

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